SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — In the past week, two children under the age of 10 have died with COVID-19 in South Dakota. As the Omicron variant continues to take hold in South Dakota, doctors say that more hospitalizations and severe illnesses among children can be expected.

Dr. Joseph Segeleon is the Vice President and Medical Officer for Sanford’s Children’s Hospital. He says that as Omicron continues to infect more adults, we will continue to see a rise in infections among children.

“The infections in children are really occurring predominantly in those that are unvaccinated,” Dr. Segeleon told KELOLAND News Tuesday. “But recall, that that includes anybody that is under the age of five.”

A January 13 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics finds that 17.8% of all COVID-19 cases are among children nationwide. Between December 20, 2021 and January 13, 2020, COVID-19 cases among children increased by 20%.

In the Sioux Falls area, the increased number of pediatric hospitalizations of children with COVID-19 has never been higher.

Last week when KELOLAND News spoke with Sanford’s Chief Physician, Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) was completely full and was opening extra beds in the unit. As of last week, three children in the PICU were “severely ill” with COVID-19 with another seven or so ill, but not critically so, with the virus.

Tuesday, in a Facebook Live on the Sanford Health page, Dr. Cauwels said that in the last three weeks, the health system has seen at least 10 children hospitalized with COVID-19. While the number seems small, Dr. Cauwels compared it to average numbers of children hospitalized with other respiratory illnesses. Dr. Cauwels says that typically with respiratory syncytial (RSV) and influenza, the health system usually only sees 3 to 4 children hospitalized at one time. Compared to the 10 COVID-19 hospitalizations, Cauwels says the difference is noticeable.

RSV in South Dakota is not prominent according to Dr. Segeleon. The respiratory illness peaked early in 2021 and began declining in the fall. Right now, Sanford is seeing a “significant” amount of COVID infections and a “moderate” amount of influenza infections. In terms of hospitalizations, Dr. Segeleon said Sanford is primarily seeing COVID-19 related hospitalizations as well as influenza.

Human metapneumovirus is also going around the Sioux Falls community currently, according to Dr. Segeleon.

Looking back at influenza data over the past decade, KELOLAND News found that flu cases peaked at 9,555 total cases in the 2018-2019 season. Influenza cases in 2018-2019 were primarily among children aged 0 to 18 as they made up 62% of the total cases that season. So far in the 2021-2022 flu season, there have been 4,710 total influenza cases. To compare that to COVID-19 data, there are currently 28,813 active cases of coronavirus in South Dakota.

As far as hospitalizations, influenza hospitalizations peaked in the 2016-2017 season with 960 hospitalizations for the virus. The majority of hospitalizations that year were people over the age of 60 with 11% being people under the age of 18. In the current 2021-2022 season, there have been 67 reported hospitalizations. Active COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Tuesday are at 348 with 9,458 ever hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Two flu related deaths have been reported in the 2021-2022 season according to the South Dakota Department of Health. In the past decade, the most deaths reported in a season was in the 2014-2015 season with 63 deaths. Two children under the age of 18 died of influenza that year. Total COVID-19 deaths are at 2,560 with 66 of those deaths being reported since the start of 2022.

Dr. Cauwels says that influenza typically peaks in January or February.

As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, both Dr. Cauwels and Dr. Segeleon agree that we can expect to see a rise in hospitalizations among children, especially unvaccinated children.

Both doctors encourage parents to consider vaccination for children over the age of 5 to reduce the risk of severe illness and hospitalization. For those under the age of 5, Dr. Cauwels encourages mask wearing, for children that are old enough to wear a mask, and washing hands frequently.

Dr. Segeleon says the best thing parents can do to keep their young children safe from the Omicron variant right now is to “surround that child in the household with people that are vaccinated.”